South Korea's ministry in charge of relations with North Korea is urging caution over reports of a power shuffle in Pyongyang. Seoul's spy agency said leader Kim Jong Un removed his uncle as second in charge and had two of his aids executed prompting a media frenzy of speculation.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service late Tuesday said it believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle was dismissed, and two of his assistants executed, on charges of corruption and disloyalty.
The uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was vice chairman of North Korea's powerful National Defense Commission and mentor to the young leader after his father, Kim Jong Il, died two years ago.
But on Wednesday, Unification Ministry spokeswoman Park Soo-jin was cautious in responding to the spy agency's claims.
She said at the moment, they understand there is a strong possibility that Jang Song Thaek was removed from all of his positions. However, in the past, there were official reports that other leaders stepped down due to health issues. But in the case of Jang Song Thaek, she said, there has been no official report.
The story has dominated South Korea's media since late Tuesday when lawmaker Jung Cheong-rae released the spy agency's claims to reporters.
Jung is a member of the National Assembly's intelligence committee that was briefed by the NIS on the alleged ousting of Jang Song Thaek.
Analysts have noted that Jang has not made any publicized appearances for the past month, indicating the 67-year-old's influence on Kim Jong Un has been waning.
Pyongyang has not made any comments on the NIS claims.
Lim Jae-cheon is a professor of North Korean Studies at Korea University. He said if there is a power-struggle in North Korea, it would be a power-struggle between Kim Jong Un and Jang Song Thaek. He says Kim Jong Un has a firm determination to control North Korea under his own power and Jang Song Thaek’s influence was too excessive. He said Kim Jong Un might have thought Jang’s power was an obstacle in expanding his own power.
Andrei Lankov, Professor of Korean history at Kookmin University, says a power struggle, while possible, is not likely. He said the 30-year-old leader Kim Jong Un is consolidating his power under a younger generation and Jang's removal would more likely be the first sign of a widespread purge.
“Not only Jang Song Thaek but a vast majority of the current top civilian bureaucrats being gradually displaced by new people; people whose name we don't know, people who are very young-roughly of Kim Jong Un's age. And this is necessary for Kim Jong Un if he is going to start a policy of his own,” said Lankov.
Jang Song Thaek fell from grace in the past under Kim Jong Il when he disappeared for a few years only to return to a high rank just ahead of the leadership transition.
Kim Jong Il removed from power his own uncle, Kim Young Joo because, according to some analysts, he was seen as a likely successor. He was later reinstated.
Lankov said the removal of mentor in the Kim dynasty is similar to a royal family distancing the regent to solidify power in the monarch.
But he said, even if true, it is unlikely Pyongyang will confirm the dismissal of Jang Song Thaek because he is related to the ruling family.
VOA Seoul Bureau Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.